It’s impossible to miss. The stage for the pregame concert is going up in the parking lot on the east side of Lambeau Field.
A block away a huge banner featuring quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees hangs from the Resch Center and overlooks Ray Nitschke Field, where the Packers returned to practice on Sunday.
The hype is here, the atmosphere is building, and Head Coach Mike McCarthy is paying absolutely zero attention to it.
“I couldn’t tell you what they’re really doing in the pregame,” McCarthy said, adding that the closest he’ll get to Kid Rock, Maroon 5 and Lady Antebellum on Thursday is hearing them from his third-floor office. “We’re really focused on the game.”
That word – focus – came up in one form or another around a dozen times in McCarthy’s post-practice press conference on Sunday. He called all the extra-curriculars surrounding this season-opener, which pits the last two Super Bowl champions against one another, a “celebration for our fans,” but he refuses to be distracted and he expects the same from his team.
“After the smoke clears and the celebration stops, it’s a football game,” McCarthy said. “It’s a football game against a very good football team, an established football team, and that’s really what it comes down to.”
His message appears to be getting through, even to the rookies.
“It means nothing,” second-round draft pick Randall Cobb said, referring to the big archway crowning the concert stage along Oneida Street. “As a football player and as a pro athlete, you have to worry about your job and handle your job at hand.”
For the Packers, that meant continuing on Sunday to implement the game plan for the Saints they worked on here and there during training camp.
McCarthy didn’t discuss the team’s injury report – the first one will be released on Monday – but he had to be pleased to see defensive end Mike Neal return to practice for the first time since injuring his knee on Aug. 16. All five wide receivers who sat out Thursday’s preseason finale against Kansas City – Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Cobb – plus tight end Jermichael Finley also practiced. The workout was not in pads, and whether all the returnees were “full” or “limited” participants wasn’t known.
“A lot of energy, excessive energy, frankly,” McCarthy said of practice. “Had an excellent tempo.”
McCarthy would demand that through all three days of on-field preparation for any game, even if the opposing quarterback wasn’t “watching” them with an eye-in-the-sky feel from the north end of Nitschke.
There is more to block out this week, of course, but it will only serve as the first of many tests as the Packers embark on their first season as the reigning champions in 14 years.
“It’s a similar feel to a big game, a playoff game … I don’t want to say a Super Bowl,” Rodgers said. “There’s a big atmosphere outside the stadium, but to us the only thing that matters is taking care of business on the field.”
Rodgers said backup quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Graham Harrell razzed him about his big poster next to Brees, and he joked that linebacker Clay Matthews was upset the poster wasn’t of him.
No laughing matter, though, was the scene Sunday morning in the team meeting room, where McCarthy is repeating the motivational tactic he used a year ago at this time. Last year, amidst the team photos of the 12 previous championship teams in franchise history, McCarthy put up a blank photo to represent the 13th championship team.
That vision came true, and now there’s another blank picture frame on the wall once again. If that doesn’t hone the focus, nothing will.
“We’re in the same spot, and now we have to do it all over again, which is fun,” Matthews said. “That’s why we play this game, because this past is behind us now. We’re on to a new year, and it starts this Thursday.” Additional coverage - Sept. 4